Breakthroughs – The Lessons Come When You’re Ready to Learn Them

Golden Retriever on bed

I'm sure glad you had some breakthroughs before I came along. I'd hate being tied out in the yard.

Lately, I’ve read a few accounts by writers on getting their first dog. The part of me that’s a big old “Judgie McJudger” starts wondering, “What were they thinking? Did they really believe just tossing a seven week old puppy into a crate was a good idea? How did they think their dog would learn anything if they never trained him?”

And then I think back to my ideas about dogs, way back in the dark ages of my childhood.

No Breakthrough, Just Broken

My first dog lived outside. He had a doghouse and a chain that kept him from escaping to have fun when no one was nearby to watch him. My mom taught him to use the woods as his toilet, never the yard. He learned after having his nose pushed into his own feces a few times.

His life wasn’t all bad. I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child and Duchess was my favorite playmate. (Yes, I know that’s a girl’s name. Now. What do you expect if you let a five year old, who has just seen the Aristocats, name a dog?)

Duchess was quite the hunter and enjoyed pursuing, playing with, and killing the moles and groundhogs stupid enough to visit our yard and garden.

I learned from being with Duchess that a dog was a faithful, nonjudgmental friend. And I learned that I wanted to live with a dog again if I ever got the chance.

But trying to understand a dog’s point of view? Asking myself what caused a dog to do the things he does? That was nowhere in my thoughts.

The First Breakthrough – What Does a Dog Think?

My first breakthrough came when I borrowed Jan Fennell’s The Dog Listener: Learn How To Communicate for  Willing Cooperation from my library.

Fennell argued that dogs were descended from wolves. And that they couldn’t live comfortably with humans unless they understood themselves to be subordinate members of the “pack.” Fennell suggested eating before your dogs or going through open doorways first to reinforce your leadership of the pack.

Yes, I can feel the waves of hostility coming off the screen from the dear readers who recognize this as poor science based on bad assumptions. You’re right. All these outmoded ideas have been long debunked. And the scientist whose wolf research spawned much of these notions has disavowed them.

But stay with me for a moment–the notion that a dog would be motivated by something besides doing what I told him was groundbreaking news. Even an incomplete understanding of a dog’s wolf ancestry led me to a new understanding that a dog might have his own desires and needs apart from my own.

It’s one reason I work hard to find common ground and open points of dialogue with the many thousands of people still stuck in using outdated understandings of “pack leadership” and being the alpha in their household. For all I know, these folks might have just had the first breakthrough of many on their way to a better understanding of dog nature and a more satisfying relationship with their own dog.

Although it’s not where I am today, reading Jan Fennell’s book was a breakthrough for me.

The Second Breakthrough – “Misbehaving” May Be a Very Rational Response

Golden Retriever sniffing tree

You're definitely getting smarter. I wonder what other ideas I can sniff out for you to learn. Perhaps dogs must sleep on an innerspring mattress with lots of cushy blankets?

I discovered Suzanne Clothier by accident. I picked up her book, Bones Would Rain From the Sky: Deepening our Relationship with Dogs because I was enchanted by the title. And the idea of having a two-way relationship with a dog fascinated me.

But it was reading Clothier’s article on reacting to bad manners that transformed my ideas about dogs. (If you click no other links today, click this one. It’s funny and provocative.)

Angel choirs started singing and a great ray of light came from the sky when I realized that sometimes my dogs were being perfectly rational in their negative responses to other dogs (and sometimes they weren’t).

I started trying to understand how dogs were speaking to each other and to us without taking their cute fuzzy faces as blank slates that expressed nothing but pure puppy joy. I started looking for ear positions, flicking tongues, and highly erect tails. And I started learning how to understand dog.

The other thing I learned from Clothier’s article is to learn how to be a better advocate for my dogs. It’s my responsibility to look out for my dogs first and to make sure they are calm and comfortable with a situation instead of worrying about what other people think.

The Third Breakthrough – ?

I don’t know what new things I’m going to learn in the future. I’m very blessed to learn from all the great dog people who hang out in blog world–gifted amateurs, foster parents, professional trainers. And I’m fortunate to have had some wonderful dogs who have taught me many things and suffered my ignorance without complaint.

When will the next breakthrough come? I don’t know. But it should be a good’un.

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  1. Mike Webster says:

    From the Husband:
    Your Third Breakthrough will come when Jan Fennell circles back and writes “The Husband Listener: Learn how to Communicate for Willing Cooperation from the Unintentionally Hard-Headed and the Unwittingly Clueless.” (No offense to you other husbands out there.)

  2. Being around a litter of puppies is always amazing to me. Just seeing how puppies from the same litter can have such different personalities. It’s a reminder that all dogs are different as all humans are, and in training them, one size does not always fit all.

  3. That could possibly apply to husbands…

  4. Really thoughtful post… it’s amazing how our perspectives change, isn’t it?

  5. It’s funny what routes those breakthrough moments take to find us sometimes! :)

  6. It’s amazing the things we learn simply for sharing our lives with dogs. And our dogs are amazing too, for having the patience for us to catch on.

  7. that was a very long [Clothier] article but entirely worth reading! thanks for sharing it. i must send it on to My Other Half. Georgia sounds a lot like Cream.

    THANK YOU ALSO FOR THE AMAZON GIFT CARD! i still can’t believe i won it :0 and will shortly get down to ordering A Desired Book. so many things to do, so little time :) xox

  8. I grew up with dogs, but wanted to do things differently with my dog when we brought Bailey home. I thought we had learned so much until we brought Katy home and we realized just how much we did not know.

  9. You story about your relationship with Duchess (I love the name! Dogs have no need for gender anyway IMO) reminds me a lot of mine with my childhood dog. She wasn’t tied up but she stayed outdoors for most of her life. She was never allowed on the carpet or furniture and we barely even taught her to sit. When I think of her, I always feel bad for not spending nearly as much time with her in 17 years as I have with my current dog in 2.

    I have yet to read that book but it has been on my list for a long time. Thanks for the links!

  10. I loved the book “Bones Would Rain From the Sky” and consider it one of my favorite recommendations for people looking to understand dogs on a different level. Like many bloggers, the way my family had pets when I was a child is far different from the way I’ve raised my pets. Surprisingly, my parents have also greatly changed how they view the pets in their lives now through watching and listening to me. It’s gratifying to know that as we all work towards changing ideas of pet ownership, signs of change are seen every day.

  11. That article was a funny read until I realized her description of the rude dog (minus the legs) fit Dewi to a T! Ugh. (Honestly, I’ve known he’s one of those dogs for some time – although I’d prefer to label him as socially clueless vs. rude.) I used to get offended when people would hurry their dogs away from his approaching smiling face at the dog mall. But now, I realize those owners were doing Dewi a favor. I have to watch him very closely around unfamiliar dogs now – he just doesn’t get the personal space thing. But then, neither does my dad. :)

  12. You had me worried for a moment when you mentioned Jan Fennell:) Whew, worried for nothing!

    I think we are SO lucky to have the internet and all the information we need at our fingertips …. often too much information! And the pet blogging world is just mind bogglingly awesome. I haven’t read the Suzanne Clothier article yet, I will shortly. I did get her book from the library years ago but can’t remember it so must get it out again. There will always be differing opinions on dogs and training. I think it’s important to keep an open mind so that when the next breakthrough comes we can recognise it:)

  13. Dogs have the ability to teach and if we are able to listen, we get the opportunity to learn so many valuable life lessons. Dogs are amazing and enhance our lives so very much. : )

  14. I grew up with a sweet dog that spent its entire life in our backyard. Looking back I always feel so guilty about it, but really, I was too young to know any better.

    When my husband and I got our dog (she is our first!), The Monks of New Skete was the first book we bought, and then Leader of the Pack. My poor dog! Many books later and twelve years of her teaching us, we are blessed with a wonderful dog, and a little more knowledge. (“Bones would rain from the sky’ is also one of my favorite books.) I’m glad I kept reading and learning!!

  15. Really cool post, Pamela, and very ‘in line’ with the book I’m reading at the moment (about dog psychology). I’ve made notes of the articles and books you’ve mentioned, and hopefully will get around to reading them.

    P.S. Your husband is funny!